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The Founding Fish    by John McPhee order for
Founding Fish
by John McPhee
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

I am not a fisherman and so approached this book with trepidation. I thought that I would be bored by tedious details of fishing for shad. The only thing I knew about shad was that my mother always looked forward to spring so she could have shad roe (don't even remember if I ever tasted it.) After reading The Founding Fish, I am now looking forward to spring and shad roe. I would like to have the shad itself, cooked as is suggested in the appendix of this extremely interesting and well-written book.

John McPhee is a prolific writer, this being his twenty-sixth book. He imparts his knowledge of shad in a way that intrigues and informs. His descriptions of the outdoors (that he so obviously loves) is almost lyrical at times. The author makes this statement about his dedication to shad fishing ... 'If it's the last thing I do on earth, I'm going to have a fifty-shad day. It's that or live forever.' There's a whole new language to be learned - Catadromous; Anadromous; Diadromous - which all seem like impossible mouthfuls, but not when the author explains the terms and pulls you into his explanations and leaves you wanting more.

He talks of a 0-1,000-hertz hydrophone, which left me at the gate. But as he described the sounds that can be heard, he reeled me in just like the fish he catches. This hydrophone is so sensitive it can hear sand grains in motion. 'A relaxing and soothing sound not unlike the recorded surf played above the crib of infants, it was audible geomorphology - you were listening to mountains on their way to the sea'! What a grand concept and one I would like to experience.

McPhee quotes Thomas McGuane who says when looking for shad, 'You don't look for whole fish; you look for parts - light on the tail, the flicking fin - or shadows or chimerical reflections.' One could almost be reading poetry. He talks of shad fences in the Schuykill River in the 1700s, how a shad run, again on the Schuykill, saved Washington's men from starvation in 1777-78. The chapter titled 'Founding Fish', which is an enthralling account of the importance of shad in the birth of our nation, is not to be missed.

And then there is the story of how during the Civil War, Pickett was at a shad bake instead of leading a charge against the Union, and lost half his men. The last chapter is devoted to the pros and cons of the catch and release method of fishing for shad. I am still not a fisher person and probably never will be. But I enjoyed this book very much and highly recommend it. It would make a great holiday gift for the outdoorsman or the couch potato.

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